Running a Weekend 40K Campaign for Strangers, Part 2 of 2

This two-part post asks a simple question: what’s it like to drive hundreds of miles to a house in Devon and run a narrative wargaming weekend for five friendly strangers? Welcome to part two, in which I find out. In part one I created a stripped-down version of Warhammer 40,000’s Crusade suitable for weekend events, along with a bunch of illustrations, and figuring out the story and missions.

Now it’s time to find out if any of it works.

Driving Down to Devon

It’s a four hour drive from Oxford to the south coast of Devon, but I plan to break it up by calling in for tea with my folks, whose house is only a three mile diversion off my route. It’s the middle of the day, and the weather’s pretty chill. The roads seem calm.

But then I hit a wall of traffic on the dual carriageway southbound, and eventually join a sombre line of cars filing past a gaggle of emergency responders doing their best with two mangled SUVs. Now thirty minutes delayed, I reach the junction with the motorway. While turning round the roundabout, two lorries in front of me just roomba into each other with the casual strength of wayward bulls. They come to a very unarguable halt, and they’re going to jam up two different streams of traffic feeding a motorway junction. It takes a moment to check if anyone’s hurt – they aren’t – before the journey resumes. I then encounter a third crash-induced queue on the motorway itself, and all told, four hours of driving turn into six.

Real Life™ is happening to some other people today, and it rather puts my concerns about how good the campaign will be into perspective. Sadly, it means I only get about five minutes with the folks. Most of these five minutes are occupied by my conscientious father wanting to check that Google Maps will, in fact, take me to the proper destination (it will) via the proper route (depends on your definition of the proper route). I take this as a touching display of parental concern, despite my inexorable advance into middle age. I bid them farewell and jump back in the car so as to avoid being late for the dinner that Tom is already preparing.

The sun goes down as I wind my way through the car-width roads and high hedgerows of Devon. I grew up here, so this is enjoyably familiar, but it tends to make people from for’n parts (i.e. fifty miles east) get the fear. My Punto bounces and swerves as best it can around and over potholes, piles of horseshit, and the occasional line of grass running down the middle of the road. It’s a nostalgic break from the tediously twee Cotswolds in which I currently live.

Meeting the Unknown Warhams

It’s dark by the time I arrive at what I think is Tom’s childhood home. I don’t let myself think about it long enough to get shy, I just walk on in and say hello. It’s a good-size place, and nice, too. Tom (@sonsofananta) is cooking something deliciously bougie while other Tom (@chivalry.is_dead) and RJ (@stellararchipelago) chat about pleasingly nerdy shit. @chivalry.is_dead immediately disproves his own handle by helping me unload the car.

Tom: In some ways this was the crux of the weekend for me. I wanted various diverse friends to come and get to know each other, bonding over a common interest. I’ve always enjoyed facilitating that sort of thing, and while the weekend was my event I didn’t want it to about me.

So in the weeks leading up to the event I contacted and spoke to everyone about any concerns they might have, and requests or requirements for food or anything else. Without going into any details there were various physical and mental things that could affect people coming and I wanted to make sure we’d addressed any concerns before the weekend began, so after people arrived everyone would feel relaxed and cared for, and under no pressure.

Food matters to me so I wanted to make the catering a bit more than just refueling, and Charlie taking on so much of the game design meant I could put some brain resources into that aspect.

So it was lovely to see RJ and Charlie seem so relaxed and chatty on that first evening, and I hope everyone felt like they’d bonded a bit.

After eating the fruits of Tom’s labour (the fruits are well executed and nourishing) we decide to have a random knockabout doubles game to help RJ and Chivalry reacquaint themselves with 40K in preparation for tomorrow. It’s a promising time; everyone’s sporting and pleasant. We wind up the game, and sit around bullshitting until Matt (@dice_rolling_dad) and Gir from the Bristol Gaming Collective show up in time for everyone to go to bed. They also seem extremely friendly, and any fears I had of not getting on fine with these dudes are dispelled. It soon becomes apparent that a majority of the people in the room appreciate the music of the gods (metal) and I take this as a further sign that I am in the right place.

There’s one fly in the ointment: due to a logistical mishap, the map’s not going to work; the other devices we have to hand that can connect to the TV are not devices that let us use the interactive elements of a Google Drawing.

This, dear reader, is why one plans around technical difficulties.

Tragically inert map visible on TV at end of room. Credit: @dice_rolling_dad


We rise early, and start laying out terrain for the games: two boarding action tables for fighting through the corridors of the Sukalnik, and the outskirts of the Dark Mechanicum base for Tom’s Ynnari to execute their initial “aggressive reconnaissance” in which they will learn that Ma’Ta is not some random techmagos but your actual capering, pulsating, chortling, weepy-eyed daemon.

Dark Angels come aboard the Sukalnik. Credit: @Chivalry.is_Dead

The lads are all keen to help get stuff set up, and the carnage begins. I have a close-fought game against Chivalrous Tom’s Dark Angels, who – having spent millennia in the warp – have no idea what’s going on, and have just responded to the first distress signal they heard. I welcome them to the 41st Millennium with plasma and bolt rounds, for truly, this is not an age of peace, understanding, or penetrating questions. As much as I think of my Scions as being more reasonable and secular than most Imperial servants, it’s important to remember these are still fascistic indoctrinated assholes who meet most situations with suspicion. But I digress.

The first round seems to have been a good time for everyone, win or lose.

Tom: I got to run a Corsair force (Drukhari) for the first time in tenth edition, and one of the great things about games at this smaller scale is that you really have the opportunity for lesser units to have their chance to shine, and it’s a cause for massive celebration when a splinter pistol from a Wrack chips that final wound off an Obliterator. I’ve always enjoyed these lower point games and they’re so much less taxing than 2k or larger games.

Matt: A brilliant start to the weekend! I always love playing Tom, and to face his gorgeous models is always a pleasure. It ended with a glorious face off as my venom crawler made a beeline for his warlord, took him down, and then took himself down in the process with the fickle dark pacts!

Converted Venom Crawler versus dinner. Credit: @dice_rolling_dad

We throw lunch into our faces and plough on to round two. This time I’m meeting the Dark Mechanicum lads in a boarding action. Matt’s brought 5 Havocs with autocannons, 3 Obliterators, and a bunch of Accursed Cultists, all led by a Warsmith. This seems like it’s going to take some killing, so I ditch my usual proliferation of Battleline stuff in favour of Aggressors, Terminators, and Hellblasters. I expect to get a potent beefing, as I know Matt’s a very able player who actually does tournaments and so forth, but it turns out I have a homefield advantage: he hasn’t fought many boarding actions. This ends up saving my bacon, and I trade my Hellblasters for his Obliterators, then take the field with my surviving Terminators. Matt giggles as his Accursed Cultists’ sticky fingers bounce off adamantine plate, and I start to realise the extent to which he enjoys playing demented villains.

He’s extremely un-villainous as an opponent, though, and even gifts me a badass Astartes coin to use as my Oath of Moment marker hereafter. It’s an unexpected gift, and I’m touched.

Matt: It all went to plan! I jest, but I’m always anxious in the start of games against a loverly person I’ve never played before. When my shooting vaporised the Hellblasters, I was concerned the game could fall one-sided. But the reality was far from that, Charlie being a true marine general merely baited me with the Hellblasters to smash me in the face with Terminators and then follow that up with an Aggressor/Terminator sandwich!

The Cobalt Scions Terminators make their move on @dice_rolling_dad’s Havocs.

After another tasty dinner by Tom, and subsequent cleaning tasks, we knuckle down to round three. This time I’m facing Gir’s Iron Warriors. He’s excitedly built a Kratos and a Spartan just for this weekend, and uses both of them in our 1,500 point game. I absolutely lack the skills and units needed to deal with them, particularly when they’ve got the Mark of Nurgle, and he proceeds to absolutely demolish me. Any experienced wargamer accepts that you’ll fight some battles that are just going to go comedically badly for you, and since I came to this weekend assuming I’d get savaged in every game, this honestly feels fine. The comedy icing comes when the one unit I’ve got that’s vaguely achieving something other than vanishing behind a disco display of high powered cutting beams gets rocked by a 11” charge by his Terminators. I’m tabled by turn 2 or 3, I forget which, but Gir’s very nice about it. Given that much the same thing happened to him when fighting Tom’s Ynnari in round 2, I’m glad to have at least given him some Iron Warriors fanservice.

Charlie (left) pictured mere moments before melting before the Iron Warriors of Gir (right). Credit: @dice_rolling_dad

Tom: My second game versus Gir, which Charlie mentions here, was one of those games where the matchup stank. I took an all mechanised Harlequin list, which was thematic and cool, but also lethal against marines. My damage maxed out and Gir had bad luck. It was a bit of a clunker of a game, and I had the feelbads about it. Turns out Harlequins at lower points level, with their ability to be wherever you want them to be and hit hard, kick arse.

Game 3, versus Chivalric Tom, was an absolute banger. One of those games that had amazing cinematic moments from start to finish. It was also a game where by strict victory conditions I probably won, but the flow of the game and the narrative suggested a Dark Angels win, as they managed to escape with enough of their armoured convoy. So we just agreed it was a chaos victory instead. I’ve known Tom for years, and sometimes you need to throw out the Rules as written and go with your gut.

Matt: Game 3 for me was the stunning RJ and his equally stunning Grave Apotheons. This was one of those beautifully silly games. It started with his Rapier laser burning a hole in my daemon engines, to which my daemon engine returned the favour. We were exchanging big damage shots back and forth until his Dreadnought finished off one of my daemon engines, which set off a chain reaction of mortal wounds that killed the next daemon engine, which also exploded, killing another of mine which also exploded! All the while my warpsmith is glad he wore his brown trousers in the middle of it all!

Daemon engines swamp the centre of the field seconds before Matt rolled the mother of all chain reactions on his own monsters. Credit: @dice_rolling_dad

All in all it’s a good time. People remain in high spirits, and are keen for the team game tomorrow. Team Chaos had a mixed start, but absolutely swept the board in round 3, which means they’ll get all three bonuses going into the team game. The one real Imperial success was that we booted Chaos off the Sukalnik, but if we can’t win the team game at the end, we won’t be able to scrounge up the raw materials planetside to fix her up. Not with a possessed Warhound Titan stomping about.

Despite initial successes, the Imperium is now firmly on the back foot.


I wake up, un-filth myself in the shower, and start laying out terrain for the grand finale. Gir has kindly brought his titan-shaped resin child down from Bristol for us to use as Ma’Ta’s pet project, and I build the terrain around it, laying out pipes and gantries all converging on it, to try and give a sense of this thing drinking vast reserves of power as it prepares to awake. People stop by and ask if they can help, or if they can bring me any breakfast, but I’m in full terrain goblin mode. I simply will not be distracted until I’m sure I’ve prepped everything, and it’s quicker for me to just do stuff than spend ages explaining what’s needed. The layout is not necessarily balanced, and is somewhat a case of form over function. It’s probably more of a disadvantage to my own side, so I figure it’s a forgivable sin.

Tom: The set up looked incredible – it was pure 40k, with gantries and fuel pipes leading to the Warhound titan. It was lovely seeing Charlie create this evocative board for the final battle and a joy to fight on.

RJ: I am a purely narrative player. I exclusively play Crusade and have done so since the start of 9th edition. I care not who wins, only for the fun of the story being told. So far I had been bowled over by the terrain and their boards. Not only the quantity, but the quality, all modelled and painted to what I consider a very high standard for terrain. Much higher and you’re frankly being silly. Each board already told a story in its own right before combat commenced: from the cramped confines of the Boarding Actions mission, the ruined outpost I’d chased the temporally-challenged Dark Angels to and the fuel-funneling factory I fought Matt’s horrific abominations through. And because of the beauty of the terrain it allowed for some immersive photos to remember the weekend by.

The Grave Apotheons ably demonstrate why their numbers are so small by deploying sniper scouts for a boarding action. Credit: RJ/@StellarArchipelago

It didn’t matter to me that each board wasn’t perfectly balanced. Indeed, I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of the lore. The battle is where the battle is and each side plays the cards they’re dealt. This isn’t draughts and we’re not pushing abstract tokens around. This is a way of interacting with the lore of a rich fictional universe, and the battlefields served that beautifully over this weekend. But when I saw the board for the last mission; fully, fully three dimensional, the towering gantries, looming over even an actual titan, serving to emphasise the scale of the walker and the conflict in store, I knew this was the thing narrative wargaming dreams are made of.

Eventually, the table is ready. The others think it looks pretty cool, or at least they do a convincing job of saying so while I wolf down some muesli.

Matt: Charlie you are an artist at laying the table! Don’t downplay it! Walking into the room and seeing this beast was a wonder!

Charlie: You’re too kind, mate.

Daemon-Magos Ma’Ta performs the ritual to light the Warhound Titan’s reactor. Credit: Chivalry.is_Dead

The Imperial objective is simple: there are four fueling points. If the Imperium destroy three of them by performing an action, we win. If we destroy 2 it’s a draw; any other result is a win for Chaos.

Things are certainly stacked against us thanks to Team Chaos’ hat-trick in round three. Specifically:

  • The Dark Mechanicum’s victory prevents the Imperium from getting a bonus sixth turn to destroy objectives.
  • The Iron Warrior’s victory means that in the event of a draw, it instead becomes a marginal win for Chaos.
  • The victory of the Fallen means that they’ve delayed the arrival of the Imperium’s unexpected help from the Ynnari.

Both teams have gathered a fair bit of military intelligence by looting crates over Saturday, so each team’s ended up – coincidentally – with 5 communal command points. Team Anti-Chaos will spend the game seeking consensus before spending such points. Team Chaos, specifically Matt, will simply chortle and spend them when he pleases. It’s on-brand.

We treat each army in the team game as an independent force in rules terms, meaning they generate their own non-transferrable Command Points and can use their own stratagems without worrying about what their teammates are doing. This generally works fine, but has one unfortunate effect, which is that both Matt and Ger have vehicles with the Mark of Nurgle, which prevents them being targeted by anything outside 18”.

The ill-fated advance begins. Credit: @StellarArchipelago

In a game in which each player only has 750 points and thus only a few big tanky things each, this effectively means our anti-tank stuff is very limited in what it can target (we can shoot the shit out of the Fallen), while theirs is not. Via desperate shenanigans by Tom’s Ynnari, Team Say No to Chaos manage to sort out two of the objectives before being battered into a fine red mist. It’s definitely not all about the Nurgle strats; I make a few bad calls, and expose my Hellblasters to more lines of sight than is wise when people have spent the weekend coming to fear them. Still, it’s big cinematic fun, and it’s Matt himself who suggests that, given the Imperium still have control of the Sukalnik but can no longer scrounge what they need to fix, that there’s really only one ending that makes sense…

Tom: Just a fabulous final game. Team Chaos did great work, and it was only by skin of our teeth that my lead character managed to shut off a couple of the valves. A fighting failure, and as my forces scamper into the Webway…

To manifest in the mortal realm is the dream of many a daemon, but not like this. Bound to an inert iron form for ten thousand years, forgotten, discarded, seething. The daemon finds linear time unbearably constraining.

Finally, its metal body is being fed power. Finally, its hated enslaver Ma’Ta is being foolish enough to give it the agency it is owed.

Small beings battle over the pipes feeding it. Supplicants and despoilers fight and die. The despoilers begin to flee. The daemon is pleased to see it has fine servants. Its reactors kindle. Plasma coils warm. The little despoilers are long gone, and hated Ma’Ta is laughing as the rites come to an end, but then the daemon’s servants begin to flee too. Why? The daemon intended to shoot only one or two of them to test its new weapons.

The daemon’s reactors finally ignite. It takes its first thunderous step. It turns upon Ma’Ta, standing above it on the gantry, arms outstretched in triumph. The daemon sees Ma’Ta look up, and sees joy fade. The daemon follows his gaze. There is a light in the sky. Not a sun, but an object, coming nearer, cleaving the atmosphere. The daemon’s lenses whirr and it perceives a ship, a vast ship. The descent is so fast it’s igniting the air. Clouds are forced aside. Kilometres of adamantine frame will not be stopped. The daemon sees now it will enjoy less than a minute of freedom. Howling through its war-horn in frustration, it fires its two giant weapons at the oncoming battleship. If there is an effect, the daemon has no time to tell before it, and Ma’Ta, are discorporated in a planet-altering impact.

In orbit, two Imperial frigates come about and aim for the Mandeville Point before incoming Chaos vessels can catch them. Their hulls are filled with as much of the Sukalnik’s crew compliment and most precious devices as would fit.

Ninety-three percent of the Sukalnik’s crew are not aboard.

What could be improved next time?

The stripped down Crusade elements

I’m torn about the Crusade elements. The weapon enhancements seem pretty spicy, particularly if applied to beefy units like tanks, where one gun counts for a lot more. 40K has enough balance issues as it is, and I’m not sure how much getting +1 Damage on a weapon really makes more narrative happen. The more time I spend playing narrative games, the less I think unit upgrades are an important part of that. The Space Marine Codex Crusade section has loads of stuff about accruing Honour Points to promote units from Scouts to reserves to battle companies, all the way up to being veterans… but that’s something I could just choose to do after my Scouts have played X games, or done something cool enough to warrant premature promotion. At the extreme end of the scale, during 9th edition, my Ork Warboss got so potent that I just had to stop using him in most games because my regular opponents found him almost impossible to deal with, so he only came out at certain narratively appropriate times.

On the other hand, some players take real joy in upgrading their stuff, and given the way everyone levelled up as much as each other in this format, it didn’t feel too lopsided at the end. To me, at least.

But honestly? I’m not sure that I, personally, feel the need to have levelling up in the context of a weekend event. Its main bonus, I think, lay in providing secondary objectives, and I wonder if there’s something more interesting that could be done with those beyond “score X victory points,” which feels very gamey and bland to me.

Tom: I agree that the upgrades perhaps weren’t necessary. It was cool to have an MVP, but perhaps a minor unit/character upgrade would have been more thematic than giving my S12 D4 gun a 3rd shot! An exarch getting an extra attack in close combat felt cool, the extra shooting a bit guilt inducing!

Matt: I would agree with keeping the upgrades centred around the characters driving the narrative, rather than one of my Obliterators ending up with some super murder guns!

RJ: Likewise, I would happily forego unit upgrades for a weekend narrative event. For my inferior brain there’s already a lot to keep up with and I don’t just mean in game terms. Yes, there’s units I’ve never fought before, there’s coordination between compatriots in a team game, there’s faction rules and stratagems I’d not encountered and for someone with a small gaming group, that’s a lot of new mechanics to throw at me over a quite a few games in a condensed period of time. I hadn’t even played Boarding Actions before. But on top of that there’s also getting to know new people in a new setting. There’s still being tired from my flight and then overcompensating with my favourite health drink Mega Monster Ultra. Making sure I’m pulling my weight with chores alongside all the other social aspects. My humble whirlwind also became notorious but that wasn’t because I’d levelled it up outrageously, it’s just because people weren’t aware that it’s actually just a pretty good unit. It didn’t need the upgrades for people to take it seriously. Personally, I love all the levelling up stuff after a game, but that’s in a very different situation to this one where I can relax in the living room with my books and a pencil. Perhaps to mitigate what Tom says above about granting bonuses to things of already potent stopping power, upgrades could be limited to infantry or melee only.

The round robin format

For a small group, I personally enjoyed this format, largely as a way of ensuring I got to spend time with everyone. It’s quite inflexible, though, particularly with the paper handouts. If someone gets ill, or suddenly has to leave, the whole thing has to be reworked to account for it. For a larger event I’d probably have different battlezones, and let teams decide where they want their players to fight, and not try to be as granular about the narrative of each individual game.

Equally, with a group of players who are very used to narrative gaming, one can just leave it to the players to devise their own narrative around each battle and feed back into the campaign’s story afterwards. That didn’t feel appropriate here, as I had no idea if that was something these lads were accustomed to. You also run the risk of some players having very different narrative vibes, with some enjoying the Marvel-style explosions of standard Warhammer publications, and others preferring the comparatively subtler style of the old Imperial Armour campaign books from Forgeworld.

Tom: Big plus on the round robin format. Charlie’s call on not letting us do our own narratives was a solid one, because there were a number of people who weren’t familiar with one another. What I noticed was that when I was playing with the two players I’ve played multiple narrative campaigns with we adjusted and fed the narrative in naturally anyway, complementing the solid structure Charlie had already built.

How’d It Go Overall?

Broadly it felt like a success. At least, I had fun; a weekend of playing with gorgeous armies on painted terrain with nice people is always a treat. My feelings about the little details above feel like details more than actual problems. Since it was me running the campaign, I feel it’s not my place to say how good or bad it was. What I can say is that I had fun with every opponent, and loved seeing the amount of paintwork, lore, and conversions that had gone into their armies. And finally, I’m very grateful to Tom for organising the event, inviting me, and doing such a great job of feeding us!

Tom: It was one of the best gaming experiences of my life. Truly. Everything worked, and worked well, testament to Charlie’s Warhammer and campaign chops, and (I think) I did well with the food an catering/hospitality bits. I think six people was actually a better number than eight, in that it cut down on logistics. Maybe my initial concept was a touch overambitious, but in the end I had a ball. And huge thanks go to everyone who was there.

RJ: I might be able to one up Tom here and say it was the best gaming experience of my life so far. Like Charlie I met Tom through The Independent Characters Facebook group and then really solidified things in the Tide of Traitors group. It’s only the second time I’ve met Tom, after a single breakfast date in Brizzle (Charlie: That’s Bristol to the uneducated; also known as Briz Vegas), so it was an honour to be asked along. Honestly, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. In hindsight, perhaps getting rid of the unit upgrades might make things run even smoother, but it was also fun choosing an upgrade and talking with my new friends about how our units had improved. It caused a minor stir when my whirlwind Bound Protector was throwing around 3 damage per Vengeance missile. It felt fun, for the final game, that everything was tooled up for a final showdown. I’m not sure if changing anything would add to or detract from an already superlative experience rather than just deliver a different one. If this doesn’t meet with Charlie’s editorial shears I just want to take the chance to say a gigantic thank you to Chivalric Tom, Gir and Matt for being such welcoming and exemplary co-players, a titanic one to Tom for inviting me and putting me up and a cyclopean one to Charlie for planning and shepherding such a magnificent campaign. This was narrative gaming at its very finest. (Charlie: I’ll allow it. <fights smugness>).

Matt: Just an amazing way to escape reality for the weekend with some wonderful friends and food. What more could you want? Dice, food and friends! I’ll add onto the others, probably top of my gaming experiences so far. And it sets the bar very high for when we do our next one!

Ma’Ta’s not gone, just scheming their next diabolical plan. They just don’t know when to give up!

Your Turn

Whether you’re lifting my homework wholesale, cherry picking the bits you liked, or reacting against my ideas to create your own version, I hope these two posts have sparked some enthusiasm for running a narrative gaming weekend with your favourite nerds. Got ideas but still not sure how to execute them? Have feedback or questions about what I’ve written here? Comment below, email, get at me on Instagram, or indeed the Goonhammer Discord server.